What Does "Freedom of Speech" Mean in the Context of Community?

There is a fascinating meta-thread taking shape at forums.oracle.com, especially for those interested in the care and feeding of an interactive community.

It began with me issuing a strong personal warning about "personal attacks" to several Database forum regulars, who do not, to put it mildly, "get along". This warning was reproduced verbatim in a public announcement.

This warning became necessary, IMO, because certain people were using forums.oracle.com as vehicle for personal insults - meaning, speech that is designed to diminish a particular person on a personal level -- despite repeated public warnings. So, although this type of speech may not literally violate this clause in the Terms of Use:

You agree not to upload, email, post, publish, distribute or otherwise transmit through a Forum any Content that: (a) is false or misleading; (b) is defamatory; (c) is harassing or invades another's privacy, or promotes bigotry, racism, hatred or harm against any group or individual; (d) is obscene; (e) infringes another's rights, including but not limited to intellectual property rights; (f) constitutes unsolicited bulk e-mail, "junk mail," "spam" or chain letters; or (g) violates any applicable laws or regulations.

...it does fall within the gray area in which all forum moderators are sentenced to wander, for all eternity: the area bounded by the limits of common-sense civil behavior. It is the mod's job, among other things, to set the limits of what is and what is not "OK". This responsibility is backed by an enforcement power:

Oracle reserves the right to review Forum Content and remove any Content at its sole discretion.

Interestingly, some members are not comfortable with this policy or the principle of this enforcement power. They dispute the power of a particular individual to determine what is/is not "civil" behavior. Rather, in their opinion, the boundaries in question should be set by the members themselves, and enforced by them as well. (E.g., let people use the Report Abuse button to their heart's content and leave it at that.)

So, the question is out there: in an organic, self-sustaining community, what is the role, if any, of the "omniscient" moderator? A feast for thought.


WOW, Justin. You've been put in an awful position. I've seen it happen in other areas on the Web. People believe they should be allowed to act differently here because they are not face to face. Freedom of speech is not a right to say whatever you want whenever you want. My speech freedoms, privileges and rights are in place so long as they don't take away ANY of your rights or the rights of others. Keep in mind that there are many rights out there; freedom of speech is just one of them.

Posted by Waynette Tubbs on January 20, 2009 at 07:46 PM PST #

Thanks for your comment; someone needs to write a book about this stuff.

Posted by Justin Kestelyn on January 20, 2009 at 07:52 PM PST #

There's something about the internet that makes people think they have a right to childish behavior AND to anarchy. As long as people act like children, they will need to be policed. It is in the best interest of any professional environment to make rules and expect that the rules will be followed. If someone can't follow the rules of that environment, they are free to go elsewhere and behave any way they want. I really don't get the need to publicly insult someone when you don't agree with them. That just seems very immature to me. If you see a factual error, correcting it is fine but why get personal? You did the right thing. LewisC

Posted by LewisC on January 20, 2009 at 07:54 PM PST #

>> You agree not to upload, email, post, publish, distribute or otherwise transmit through a Forum any Content that: (a) is false or misleading; OTN has become a major source of false and misleading information, here are just a few examples: - The buffer hit ratio is completely useless - Rebuilding indexes is a waste of time - Changing blocksize does not change performance These are not opinions, they are statements of fact. Why is false information allowed to stay on OTN if it's a TOS violation?

Posted by Donald K. Burleson on January 20, 2009 at 09:28 PM PST #

I'm with you on this, Justin. Given explicit rules, some people will push it to the limits. I've got a six year old and a four year old, I know how they can be. A vague "If I have to tell you off again, there'll be no dessert" forces them to err on the side of caution rather than play a 'rules lawyer'. Given a 'banished' individual can easily come back under a fresh email, they are not truly banished. However it will force them to be a bit more low profile.

Posted by Gary on January 20, 2009 at 09:46 PM PST #

Don, if these are sincere beliefs, then they are not misleading. They also appear to be matters of opinion/personal experience, and thus can't be considered "false". Perhaps you missed this in the Terms of Use: "You agree that Oracle is not responsible for third party Content accessible through the Site, including opinions, advice, statements and advertisements, and understand that you bear all risks associated with the use of such Content."

Posted by Justin Kestelyn on January 20, 2009 at 11:43 PM PST #

The moderator's important role and responsibilities notwithstanding, doesn't the community at large have a role in policing and discouraging this kind of behavior? Is it possible that such behavior isn't rejected by the community because it provides, for some, a twisted sort of entertainment value?

Posted by Bob Rhubart on January 22, 2009 at 03:01 PM PST #

Justin, please be cautious. I've seen on the example of oracle-l what an indiscriminate moderating can do. That is what makes forums into sterile, politically correct environments which are soon flooded by people who do not want to invest minimal effort and are protected from being reproached by the moderator. I do agree with you that the enormous threads on the DB General forum were completely unreadable and a waste of time but please do not ban humor and banter as such. I do have a habit of giving more or less sarcastic RTFM replies when people keep pestering others with the questions that can easily be answered by the minimal effort. That resulted in a clash with Steve Adams, the moderator of oracle-l. I am deeply saddened by the fact that oracle-l forum, a member of which I used to be from its very beginning, was turned into a sterile and useless environment, mainly because of the actions of the moderator. I'd hate to see this happening to OTN forums. Keep up the good work.

Posted by Mladen Gogala on January 22, 2009 at 10:42 PM PST #

Thanks Mladen. I have no intention of disallowing (and in fact encourage): - Humor - Sarcasm - Wit - Creativity (as long as in proper context!) However, we frown upon: - Boorishness - Rudeness - Intent to offend - Playground insults ("you're an idiot") - Profanity ("you're an a******") These are mutually exclusive categories, as we well know.

Posted by Justin Kestelynj on January 22, 2009 at 10:48 PM PST #

Well, at least this post indicates that you have grasped the difference between the two moderating approaches, which your one-liners in the forum itself didn't do. It would be nice if you managed not to mischaracterise my position, however. I spent many hundreds of words explaining that my suggestion was NOT "use the Report Abuse button to their heart's content and leave it at that." Very specifically, I proposed "use the report abuse button and have the moderators react to that". Indeed, I proposed simple mathematics whereby a post complained about a lot could be locked; a poster complained about a lot could be deleted. I have never questioned your power to lock posts, delete users or otherwise "police" the forums. The question has been whether a 'make it up on the spur of the moment and leave it to my personal discretion' approach is better or worse than 'let users complain about things, I will decide if they are complaining reasonably, and the mathematics means people know where they stand on repeat behaviour'. As things stand, someone can have posts deleted because they offend no-one at all except you. Indeed, someone can have their account deleted simply because you wake up with a hangover one morning and feel like doing it. That sort of thing is, I think, acceptable when the forum concerned is run on a personal basis by an individual or small group of people; coming from a large corporation like Oracle, however, I think that degree of whim is not acceptable. My other point has been that such arbitrariness is not what the terms of service say. And it's nice to see you admit as much. Unfortunately, you go on to invent an entirely novel approach to reading legal documents! "This type of speech may not literally violate this clause in the Terms of Use" means only one thing: it does NOT violate the clause. You can't "literally violate" or "non-literally violate". Either you violate or you don't, and as you say, this type of speech doesn't. You are inventing grey areas, in short, where there are none. Just as you are inventing aspects to the "mod's job" on the fly, too. And I question whether "Oracle reserves the right to delete content at its sole discretion" provokes the same reaction as "Justin reserves the right to delete content at his sole discretion". People signed up to the former, not the latter.

Posted by Howard Rogers on January 26, 2009 at 11:46 PM PST #

My "one-liners"? Now you sound like my mother. :) What you call "arbitrariness", I call "discretion". This is the crux of our disagreement, and where we must agree to disagree. We must do the same in regard to the purported "gray areas". Perhaps, however, you believe that I will be going on daily "search and destroy" missions, seeking to exercise my discretion by nuking posts en masse. This is not my intention; I still rely heavily on the community to report what they consider to be out of line, and then I act or do not act. (80% of the time, I take no action.) As for "investing" aspects of the mod's job - it is up to Oracle to decide what the mod's job is (in this context). You can disagree with this definition, but that doesn't change the facts.

Posted by Justin Kestelyn on January 27, 2009 at 12:20 AM PST #

@Howard Your whining looks very much like jealousy of another (Justin) having power that you do not. Them's the breaks, my friend, when you go off in huff, burn your blog to the ground, and then come sniffing round OTN for a bit of action.

Posted by HarryP on January 27, 2009 at 09:26 PM PST #

@HarryP: we can always rely on you to characterise substantive discussion on serious points as 'whining'. And to get the substance entirely wrong whilst you're at it. At least your *consistently* wrong, I suppose. @Justin. I do understand the English language, and this isn't a difference between discretion and arbitrariness that I'm not aware of. And I can confidently state that what difference there exists between those two terms is *not* the crux of the difference between us. You get closer to the crux (and to my position, ironically enough) when you state that it's not your "intention to go on search and destroy missions". That is, you don't "intend" to *proactively* adjudicate on material. My complaint has been, precisely, that you should NOT proactively adjudicate on material at all and that you have no business, per the ToS, to do so. That you should instead wait until a specific complaint has been received. That has, indeed, been pretty much my only point of dispute with you. That you now casually agree with that proposition is good news in some respects, and a little surprising. Apropos Harry's inane comments, I don't object to you having the power to adjudicate these matters in the slightest. Someone's got to do the job, and it might as well be you, invested with as much discretion and commonsense as is necessary. The real question has always been whether you should exercise that power because the mood takes you or because someone complains about something specifically. That you now state you have no "intention" to exercise the power proactively, but only reactively, is progress. But intentions are flexible things, and what you (or your successors) intend today may not be what you intend tomorrow. Besides which you've already locked, then unlocked, a thread that no-one at all complained about... so your 'intentions' didn't count for much on that occasion! So "intentions" don't amount to much, really as the basis for any set of rules that someone could meaningfully sign up to. It is not arbitrariness per se that is wrong in these circumstances, in short. Your forum, your rules, after all. But that's the point: the thing should be rule-driven, not just made up on the spur of the moment by a private email sent to an arbitrarily-chosen group of people and then only added as a 'sticky post' at the top of just one of the forums as an afterthought. If you want or feel the need for the degree of "flexibility" you think is needed to "keep people civil", I think you should change the Terms of Service properly. People would then have a choice to sign up to the revised terms or not, as they see fit. Instead of that, however, you've sought to completely change the rules arbitrarily and by mere fiat -and it's that I don't think is part of the 'mod job description' or that the current ToS give you the right to do.

Posted by Howard Rogers on January 27, 2009 at 10:58 PM PST #

@ Howard: "@HarryP: we can always rely on you to characterise substantive discussion on serious points as 'whining'. And to get the substance entirely wrong whilst you're at it. At least your *consistently* wrong, I suppose." I am consistently CORRECT, on this matter. I don't know what happened to you last January, but you went into a right royal tizzy over the "8 Things" non-event and went into the most amazing sulk I have ever seen outside of a kiddies' birthday party. "I am throwing-in my lot with the Oracle Community!" was your cry, back then. And, indeed, that's how it looked: Dizwell of old trashed; virtually nothing Oracle-related on your new blog; cat fights on various others' blogs about the 8 Things; etc. But then, of late, you pop-up in the Community as if nothing had ever happened! Your site, by your own admission, gets few visits (I would suggest that many visits are "mistakes", as there are still many, many now defunct links to Olde Dizwell on the Web) and the enfant terrible kudos is no more. I genuinely believe that you miss (a) being in the swing of things and (b) having the bit of power and status that you once had. It's true that I poke fun at you, but you so deserve it. There are few things more laughably poor than someone drawing a line in the sand, only to draw a new one every time that previous resolutions get in the way of things.

Posted by HarryP on January 28, 2009 at 09:37 AM PST #

Hi Justin, >> You agree that Oracle is not responsible for third party Content accessible through the Site Do you think that web surfers see this? No, of course not. OTN is an Oracle-owned web site, and I'll wager that the vast majority of people pop-in via a web search. They see content or an Oracle site, they assume that it's been vetted, especially when it comes with credentials. That's my beef with allowing people to post unverifiable credentials, monikers like "Oracle expert", Senior DBA, "Oracle Scientist", "Database Engineer", &c . . .

Posted by Donald K. Burleson on January 31, 2009 at 06:49 PM PST #

I'm amazed by any attempt for establish ground rules...this is not a democracy, its Oracle's. For example, just because your using (say) Microsoft Excel, this doesn't give you the right to insist that they change the icon for the save button. You can *ask*, or give *feedback*, but ultimately, they own it and they can arbitrate anyway they see fit. If you don't like it...well, there's always OpenOffice. OTN forums are the same. The ToS should be: "This is property of Oracle - we reserve the right to authorise whoever the hell we want to moderate it, and we give them the right to do whatever the hell they like with posts on it"...

Posted by Connor on February 04, 2009 at 12:44 PM PST #

Hello Justin, Nice blog and a challenge for the OTN forums- I think the challenge is to distinguish between slander, libel and mean behavior versus opinions, discussion and use of humor. I know you are in a tough spot Justin and hopefully will do your best to balance humor and good discussion while weeding out libel slander on OTN forums. We are well aware of the recent and past behavior from certain individuals who shall remain nameless who unfortunately have resorted to playground bashing and disrespectful behavior that could possibly be considered grounds for libel and slander. Cheers, Ben Prusinski

Posted by Ben Prusinski on March 28, 2009 at 02:14 AM PDT #

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